Joy in Tribulation? I don’t know about THAT.

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy.”

I don’t know about that.

Joy in tribulation isn’t a major theme of James, appearing only in the beginning and end of the letter. Nor is it unique to James – Paul says very similar things in his letters. But the fact that this is the first thing you read after the opening greeting hits hard, because we are all, to varying degrees, in a time of trial right now. Are we really supposed to consider all this – pandemic and depression and division and unrest – all joy?

Here’s why James thinks we should. “[B]ecause you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” And later: “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” And near the letter’s end: “we call those blessed those who showed endurance.”

I’ve got to tell you, none of those reasons are compelling to me, though they are certainly popular. The idea that I should be happy to suffer because I’ll build endurance like a muscle presumes that that’s a muscle I want to build. If you believe that you need to work your way into God’s grace, then this makes sense, and if we’re honest, a lot of people believe that. But the New Testament as a whole argues the opposite, that we can’t earn heaven, and even though Luther and the reformers gave James the side-eye, he doesn’t argue for salvation by works either. So endurance on its own is not enough for me to be joyous right now.

Nor is the promise of a future payoff. This, too, is popular – if you suffer now, it’s worth it, because God will reward you in the hereafter. As with the last argument, that’s compelling if our faith is an “if-then” transactional faith, like an investment club. But, again, the New Testament is pretty clear that that’s not the case, that God reconciles with us on God’s own terms, and that exists outside of any action or any suffering we do now.

What about fame? James points to how we celebrate the prophets, for instance, and Job, as examples of faith because they endured through trials, and that’s true. There is a litany of those we celebrate for their perseverance, and I suppose it would be better to be on that list than on the list of those who caved. But a faith rooted in humility probably shouldn’t sell its call to endurance on the promise of faith.

So what joy can there be in trials?

I’ll offer this, though it’s not in James, as the best I can do. If the journey of faith is the lifelong process of turning from self to others, from selfishness to self-sacrifice, from greed to giving and fear to love, then there is some joy in knowing that you have an opportunity to rely more on God and less on your own self. There is some joy in surrender, because it allows you to model your life just a teensy bit more after Jesus’. And there is some joy in knowing that the experience of suffering has a redemptive power in opening us up to better empathize with the suffering of others. The trials I have faced in the past have made it a little easier to understand, honor and support those who are facing those trials now. If that stretches the circle of who I feel compassion for just a little, then that is the process of faith. And that is a joyful process.

I don’t know if that gets you to the point of “count all this as nothing but joy;” it does not get me there. But it’s a start.

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